There’s a fabulous clip on YouTube of Missouri born singer-songwriter Angel Olsen playing in a park in her current home town of Chicago a few years back. There’s no one present to observe her other than a few random locals slumped on park benches in the background and her performance is unadorned, saved for her delicate, finger picked guitar accompaniment. And then there’s her voice; naked, quavering, flawed purity delivering more emotion and resonance than 1001 airbrushed Maria Carey addled warblers and their soul-less ilk.
Fast-forward to 2014 which sees our fragile chanteuse gracing us with her second album, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen originally earned her stripes as a backing singer to acclaimed alt-folk weirdo Will Oldham (aka Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy) before breaking away to channel her inner Karen Dalton and delivering her own rapidly developing body of work. Her first record, 2012’s largely acoustic Half Way Home was a strictly solo affair, but this time around she fleshes out her sound with a full band backing for largely impressive results.
Opening track, the wonderfully named Unfucktheworld, is a placeholder of sorts; a slow moving, voice-centric burner which sounds like it’s been phoned in from afar, prior to the doors opening into Olsen’s brave new world of up-tempo sound.
Second track and lead off single Forgiven/Forgotten brings her new oeuvre perfectly to the fore, delivering a succinctly chugging indie rock accompaniment to Olsen’s bittersweet ruminations – kind of like Liz Phair when she was good! Here, Olsen’s vocal delivery is more measured than yore, largely devoid of the thrilling jolts and trills that characterise her more solemn numbers.
And the song that follows, Hi-Five, is a woozy psych-pop nugget not 100 miles removed from kaleidoscopic troubadours such as Wooden Wand or Kelley Stoltz, with Olsen’s thrilling vocal range this time coming more to the fore.
High and Wild and Lights Out may possibly be the full band highlight of the record. Olsen’s voice meshes seamlessly with the steadily rising, intuitive embellishments of drummer Joshua Jaegar. Guitarist/bassist Stewart Bronough delivers a convincing case that ‘more is ok’ in the previously isolationist world of Angel Olsen.
For the most part, Olsen’s subject matter straddles an introspective divide between bruised and defiant and on her signature slower numbers there’s a touch of early Chan Marshall (Cat Power) or even Kristen Hersh in the vulnerable nakedness of her delivery. This is particularly evident on the ethereal, back-road sparseness of White Fire where her voice is an eerily haunting instrument of beauty. And those pining for further demonstrations of former stripped back glories are rewarded with the spell binding final two tracks.
Enemy returns her bewitching vocals back to front and centre. Moments like this remind one that Olsen simply ‘singing the phonebook’ would indeed be enough. And Windows is a steadily building, ethereal torch song, with Olsen proclaiming, “We live and throw our shadows down, it’s how we get around.”
With Burn Fire For No Witness, Angel Olsen has delivered an album that moves her artistic template forward while still retaining the essence of her quietly fractured edge. Both longer term fans and newer converts will find plenty to latch onto here.
To hear the album for yourself, tune into Rabbit Radio (the Gold Coast’s very own digital streaming online radio station) on Tuesday nights from 9pm where the record will be played in full right after The Avalon Hour – which happens to be the radio mouthpiece for Antimatter’s Underground Sounds!